I feel like one of the most valuable things we have on LessWrong is a broad, shared epistemic framework, ideas with which we can take steps through concept-space together and reach important conclusions more efficiently than other intellectual spheres e.g. ideas about decision theory, ideas about overcoming coordination problems, etc. I believe all of the founding staff of CFAR had read the sequences and were versed in things like what it means to ask where you got your bits of evidence from, that correctly updating on the evidence has a formal meaning, and had absorbed a model of Eliezer’s law-based approach to reasoning about your mind and the world.
In recent years, when I’ve been at CFAR events, I generally feel like at least 25% of attendees probably haven’t read The Sequences, aren’t part of this shared epistemic framework, and don’t have an understanding of that law-based approach, and that they don’t have a felt need to cache out their models of the world into explicit reasoning and communicable models that others can build on. I also have felt this way increasingly about CFAR staff over the years (e.g. it’s not clear to me whether all current CFAR staff have read The Sequences). And to be clear, I think if you don’t have a shared epistemic framework, you often just can’t talk to each other very well about things that aren’t highly empirical, certainly not at the scale of more than like 10-20 people.
So I’ve been pretty confused by why Anna and other staff haven’t seemed to think this is very important when designing the intellectual environment at CFAR events. I’m interested to know how you think about this?
I certainly think a lot of valuable introspection and modelling work still happens at CFAR events, I know I personally find it useful, and I think that e.g. CFAR has done a good job in stealing useful things from the circling people (I wrote about my positive experiences circling here). But my sense for a number of the attendees is that even if they keep introspecting and finding out valuable things about themselves, 5 years from now they will not have anything to add to our collective knowledge-base (e.g. by writing a LW sequence that LWers can understand and get value from), even to a LW audience who considers all bayesian evidence admissible even if it’s weird or unusual, because they were never trying to think in a way that could be communicated in that fashion. The Gwerns and the Wei Dais and the Scott Alexanders of the world won’t have learned anything from CFAR’s exploration.
As an example of this, Val (who was a cofounder but doesn’t work at CFAR any more) seemed genuinely confused when Oli asked for third-party verifiable evidence for the success of Val’s ideas about introspection. Oli explained that there was a lemons problem (i.e. information asymmetry) when Val claimed that a mental technique has changed his life radically, when all of the evidence he offers is of the kind “I feel so much better” and “my relationships have massively improved” and so on. (See Scott’s Review of All Therapy Books for more of what I mean here, though I think this is a pretty standard idea.) He seemed genuinely confused why Oli was asking for third-party verifiable evidence, and seemed genuinely surprised that claims like “This last September, I experienced enlightenment. I mean to share this as a simple fact to set context” would be met with a straight “I don’t believe you.” This was really worrying to me, and it’s always been surprising to me that this part of him fit naturally into CFAR’s environment and that CFAR’s natural antibodies weren’t kicking against it hard.
To be clear, I think several of Val’s posts in that sequence were pretty great (e.g. The Intelligent Social Web is up for the 2018 LW review, and you can see Jacob Falkovich’s review on how the post changed his life), and I’ve personally had some very valuable experiences with Val at CFAR events, but I expect, had he continued in this vein at CFAR, that over time Val would just stop being able to communicate with LWers, and drift into his own closed epistemic bubble, and to a substantial degree pull CFAR with him. I feel similarly about many attendees at CFAR events, although fewer since Val left. I never talked to Pete Michaud very much, and while I think he seemed quite emotionally mature (I mean that sincerely) he seemed primarily interested in things to do with authentic relating and circling, and again I didn’t get many signs that he understood why building explicit models or a communal record of insights and ideas was important, and because of this it was really weird to me that he was executive director for a few years.
To put it another way, I feel like CFAR has in some ways given up on the goals of science, and moved toward the goals of a private business, whereby you do some really valuable things yourself when you’re around, and create a lot of value, but all the knowledge you gain about about building a company, about your market, about markets in general, and more, isn’t very communicable, and isn’t passed on in the public record for other people to build on (e.g. see the difference between how all scientists are in a race to be first to add their ideas to the public domain, whereas Apple primarily makes everyone sign NDAs and not let out any information other than releasing their actual products, and I expect Apple will take most of their insights to the grave).
It is occasionally said to me,
“Have you considered meditation and buddhism? Enlightenment is really powerful.”
This feels similar to saying
“Have you considered giving up a massive resource—one of your scarce slots for a life-long habit, a daily time-sink with week-long retreats—to Buddhist meditation? It supposedly makes you feel funny at the end, as though you’ve had a major epistemological insight (but you aren’t able to produce corresponding output as a result).”
Given the amount of people offering me something like the above, my background skepticism is very high.
The thing that will most cause me to believe that kenshŌ is valuable for epistemology, will be some examples of things you have managed to do better as a result. If, for example, you wrote sequence of recognisably useful insights unrelated to enlightenment (example), and then afterwards told me that it was due to your having felt enlightenment, I’d consider that interesting evidence. But I do predict that I find your subsequent post not much evidence either way.
I will mention that I have some notion of a thing you might be pointing towards: I’ve experienced ontological updates—updates to the feelings that make up the building blocks of how I think. And this does require a certain ‘get out of your head / no seriously look up’ motion, which you might be pointing too. Also, Buddhism is an old old religion and there’s this notion that religions do capture truths of human nature, which is why they’re able to be so widespread yet profound. So maybe you’ll manage to capture that.
But sometimes when someone has a hard time explaining something, it’s because they’re just confused. So many people are trying to communicate supposed fundamental truths, and aren’t showing much for it. As I say, my background skepticism is high.
I recently went to the flat of an old friend. The things that struck me were:
They wanted to save money on the heating bill, so they often wore jumpers and scarves around the house
They had lots of books and, just, stuff, around the house. Navigating from room to room meant avoiding things, and often knocking things over.
They would come in, and spend a while cooking eggs or something for dinner.
There were many more things in this reference class, of little things they did for little value that took up their time and attention. I had a strong overall impression of them ‘not having the space or time to think’.
That in mind, here’s a list of impositions I straight up reject:
Cooking (typically microwave, ordering out, or using MealSquares / Soylent)
Shopping regularly (I only buy in bulk. If I have to buy something one-off, I’ll still buy enough to make sure I never have to buy it again this year, e.g. plain white paper, shower gel, washing machine tablets, etc)
Taking suitcases on flights
Having a wide variety of clothes that I have to choose from
Figuring out what to do with the accumulated stuff I have when I move out of a flat (I just bin it all except the more expensive things, then re-order them on amazon to the new place)
In general, spending a lot of time and cognitive capacity to optimise small percentages of money savings
Washing dishes (I use paper plates, plastic cutlery and plastic cups)
A commute (I work in the ground floor of the group house I live in. To get to the ground floor from the top two, I have to go outside. I used to live on the top floor, and I moved to the ground floor for less commute. This makes my mornings and nights significantly easier and have less negative affect)
Searching very hard for obscure tv shows online that can be purchased cheaply from iTunes/Youtube
Spending time picking food at restaurants. I pick up the menu, pick the first thing I see that I like, and am normally done in <10 seconds.
More generally, I commonly say sentences of the sort “Huh, if we want to follow the plan then we have to move now and do everything in the exact allotted time? Cool, let’s just cut one part of it. In fact, let’s cut that one. Done.”
The thing I think I’m much less good at is chunking. Terence Tao on the subject says to batch low-intensity tasks together. Can anyone who has more of a startup lifestyle than a research lifestyle talk about how they do it?
Added: It felt prudent to mention that we’ve had a post with an almost identical title and main point before (though I liked this post’s slightly different take on it as much as the original one’s); it’s Scott Alexander’s Beware Trivial Inconveniences.
I am a minimalist in life and own very few things, but one of the few things I always buy when I move to a new place is 20 stick-on-the-wall whiteboards, and over 1000 sheets of paper, and this is a big quality of cognition improvement.
(For those of you who don’t know, you can get very cheap whiteboard that stick on the wall entirely via static, and are trivially removable/repositionable. Here’s the amazon UK and US brands that I use.)
I’ve also found sharpies much better than normal pens when using paper with someone. I find it gets us out of the school mode of ‘we must write down all the words’ and into the playful diagrams/explanation mode where ‘I write down only the useful things’. More like note-taking than work.
I fee like I have a much better understanding of what the house hoped to be from this list of mistakes, rather than from the original vision document. I suppose how that’s categorisation of concepts works.